Two years with Jake
The first time I met him, he smiled as he shook my hand. It was a smile I’d come to recognize, dimples surrounding the pearly whites. I knew of him, because people in a small town talk, almost to the point where you know too much about a person before you let them in your life. Pre-judgments are often made too hastily, but this time they were right. I’d only heard good things about this kid. He tried to take me down. There was a blue mat on the floor, his arms wrapped around my leg, driving, lifting, driving. I shook him off, both of us laughing. It was a normal wrestler greeting.
“I’m going to take you down coach,” he said, dimples at their furthest depth.
“Never,” I barked back. It was the only time I’ve told him he couldn’t do something..
You see, this kid had been told he couldn’t do things his whole life. He never listened to a word of it. He played all the sports he wasn’t supposed to play, hitting line drives, shooting the three, swinging the nine iron on a cool spring morning. Whatever they told him he couldn’t do, he made sure he did. He came from good stock, a Sunday morning singing family, a basketball dad and a cheerleading mom. I haven’t decided which side the smile came from, they all wear them so well.
I watched him walk to the middle of the mat in the way only he walked, inching forward on the balls of his feet. He had his own strut. He marched to the beat of his own drums. He shook hands and lost. He shook hands again, still smiling.
Up in the stands, he did what he does best. He hid his own emotion to bring someone else up. He had just lost, but he didn’t care, someone else needed his smile, so he gave it away freely. That was the image that burned in my head as I laid awake at night realizing that he would be mine next year, and I’d have to figure something out, something just for him.
October met us with a chill in the air, it’s an exciting time for a wrestling coach. New faces emerge, a new team to build. There he was, flat brimmed cap, dimples still out. He tip-toed his way into a new locker room. He picked his locker right next to a friend, and slowly changed his clothes, taking in the surroundings. It wasn’t the Cobras anymore. He was a Blue Lion.
It was the third year I coached my little alma mater. Junior High was my calling at the time. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of kids in my tenure. He was just another face in a room full of hope. They looked at the wall and saw my name above the blue mat, huddled with gladiators, some that they knew. Those names opened the door for their future success.
Before the first practiced ended, he tried to take me down, this time a sneak attack, I shook him off once again.
He had battles in wrestle-offs and started to win. Sometimes it took a last minute score. The spot was his.
He lost a lot of matches that year, but gained a million fans. He spent time in the stands talking to whomever came his way, became friends with his enemies, and their parents, and their parents, parents. They looked past his stature, and focused on the dimples. He lit up every gymnasium win or lose.
In a match for the ages, he had to wrestle a girl, nervously shaking her hand. In the first few seconds, I didn’t know if he could do it, but suddenly his arm wrapped around her head, and she was tossed to her back. She fought him, and escaped, so he did it again, softly placing her back on the mat. When the referee slapped the mat, they both smiled. I’m sure he could have gotten some digits if he had asked.
The season wound down, each day he shot on that leg. I held firm to my promise. “Never.”
The season ended with many sleepless nights. “God, help me help this young man win. Amen.”.
I saw him sparingly over the summer. He was a busy kid, and I was busy with my own kids, but each time I saw him, his dimples came out. We picked on each other in ways that only family could get away with. His laughter echoed around the walls in my head, hitting whatever of the 100 billion neurons that needed to be hit to make me echo it back to him. There was something simply pure about our relationship. He was the little brother I never had, or something similar. The sun went down for another summer.
October came around again, this time, he had a focus I’d never seen. His dimples were still there, but I saw his eyes. Determination. I don’t know what hit him, if someone told him he would fail, but there was something new about him, a hunger for something more. At the beginning of 8th grade, he said, “Coach, I want a medal this season.” I told him it wasn’t going to be easy, but if he worked hard enough, and wanted it bad enough, he could get there.
Wrestle-offs came and went, and he started in our first tourney. He had a good day, but left disappointed with a 5th place finish, just outside of the top 4 medal placers. After the tournament, we talked, and I explained just one more win, and he would have reached his goal, and if he worked hard enough, and wanted it bad enough, he could get there.
The next week of practice came and went. Jake was starting again. He had a great tournament and met his goal. He placed 4th. After the tournament, I told him that no one remembers who placed 4th, but they always remember the top three, and if he worked hard enough, and wanted it bad enough, he could get there. He had a new goal.
The week of practices ended, and Jake made the starting lineup. That week, he found himself in the same match, but this time, he won it. He placed third. We talked after the tournament, and I explained that he was just one match away from the finals, and if he worked hard enough, and wanted it bad enough, he could get there. He had a new goal.
The week of practices ended, and he made the starting lineup. He wrestled with a fervor I had never seen him have. He started believing in his abilities. He stayed in the championship bracket, and made it to the finals. He was beaten, but came home with the silver. We talked after the tournament, and I asked him if he had what it takes to become a champion. He said he did. I explained if you work hard enough, and want it bad enough, you could get there. With one tournament left, the most important tournament of the season the South Central Ohio League tournament, he had a new goal.
The last week of practices came and went. Jake made the starting lineup without being challenged for his spot. He walked into the tournament with a single focus. He wanted gold.
Jake is the most charismatic kid I have ever met. Everyone at every tournament knew who he was, not because he was the kid with dwarfism, but because he took the time to smile and say hello to everyone that passed him by. I’ve never seen a kid be loved by everyone in a room like Jake was. He was not alone in that finals match. Everyone in the room, with the exception of the other finalist’s parents and coaches were there with him. When his hand raised at the end of the match, I couldn’t contain the tears. That was the day Jake stood tall, but I still held to my promise. Never. My prayers had been answered, so he didn’t need that takedown anyways.
I couldn’t have scripted it better than that.
“Big” Jake Waters SCOL Champion. It sealed the team championship too.